Editor’s note: This is second of a two-part series.
With the end of World War I two months prior, January 1919 became a critical time to solidify peace. President Woodrow Wilson had been working to end the war in Europe since 1914 and redoubled his efforts after America entered the war in 1917 in response to German provocations. Two Texans, Edward House, Wilson’s most trusted advisor and son of a Houston sugar magnate, and Sidney Mezes, the former president of the University of Texas, served in key positions to advise Wilson on the postwar peace before the war ended and at the peace negotiations in France.
Mezes and House had studied the issues surrounding the war in Europe as part of a special presidential commission appointed in late 1917 and helped Wilson craft a framework called the Fourteen Points. Armed with this plan for this lasting peace, Wilson was confident that the most powerful nations could live free of war in the future. Eight of these points included provision for restoring territories to France and Belgium as well as an independent Poland and redrawing the boundaries of Eastern Europe and the Middle East after the Central Powers governing those areas were defeated. The remaining dealt with issues of international trade, armaments, and cooperation. At the same time, the American delegation was mindful of the possible problems that could develop with China and Japan.
Wilson named 21 diplomats to the American Peace Commission in Paris, including House and Mezes. In his bid to negotiate the peace treaty, Wilson became the first American president to travel overseas during his presidency. When Wilson arrived, he was greeted by more than two million ecstatic French citizens when he rode through Paris in a parade in his honor. Though the French were grateful Allies with the United States, their government was determined to rid themselves of future threats from Germany and to punish them for the 1914 invasion. Georges Clemenceau, the president of France, was especially resistant to Wilson’s plans. “The Almighty gave us Ten Commandments, but Wilson has given us Fourteen.”
Negotiations took place at the old French royal palace of Versailles outside Paris, an ornate, 67,000 square-foot mansion that was once the envy of all European kings. House continued his wartime role as an outspoken negotiator with other delegates, running from one delegation to another in an effort to relay Wilson’s wishes and find common ground. Mezes played a quieter role than in New York, but Wilson still relied on his advice, support, and diplomatic skills.
While Clemenceau was hesitant about Wilson, he was impressed with House. “Colonel House is practical, I can understand him,” he had said.
Wilson briefly returned to America in February to find that his political opponents were attempting to sabotage his peace plans, especially American entry into the League of Nations. Wilson returned to Paris to negotiate a few details he felt would satisfy his critics before the treaty was signed in June. But the treaty faced a hostile Senate dominated by Republicans. A bitter debate on Senate ratification ensued that summer and fall. House and other peace delegates spoke in support of the treaty while Wilson campaigned across the country for it.
Wilson rebuffed his critics. “Some people call me an idealist,” he said. “That is how I know I am an American. America is the only idealist nation in the world.” In September 1919, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. The strain of the war and the negotiations continued to be a drag on his health. Biographers believe that Wilson had already suffered several small strokes that were affecting his judgment before he had a massive stroke in October that left him mostly paralyzed, mute, and incoherent for weeks. Physicians of the day could do little for stroke victims, and Wilson never fully recovered.
With Wilson still recovering and seeing treaty ratification failing, House jumped in to try to save the treaty. As House negotiated with Senate Republicans on a compromise for the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, the still frail Wilson grew furious at House’s efforts. He considered any effort to water it down further a betrayal. Wilson’s rebuke was enough to scuttle the remaining negotiations. The two never spoke again.
In the end, the United States never signed the treaty nor joined the League of Nations. America ultimately signed a separate peace with Germany, and the League drifted without American influence. In 1921, historian and fellow delegate Charles Seymour, along with House and Mezes wrote What Really Happened at Paris, an attempt to explain the treaty and the controversies that followed.
Mezes retired to California where he died in 1931. House spent most of the 1920s lobbying the Senate to ratify the League of Nations and for the United States to join the League of Nations, both efforts ending in futility. In spite of this, he was honored with a statue in a newly independent Poland in 1932. He died in 1938. For all their attempts to keep the world from another cataclysmic war, the major powers of Europe chose not to listen to Wilson or anyone else, and bitterness from the first war steadily hardened. World War II started in Europe in 1939.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.